Is It OK to Hype Your Own Clothes?

Say you're admiring someone's fabulous new shoes, and they tell you not only who designed them, but where to get your own pair. It might be an innocent exchange between friends, but it could also be what's now called "buzz marketing." This week's letter to the New York Times Magazine Ethicist Randy Cohen comes from a listener who's wondering about the ethics of this practice.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

So let's say you're admiring my handsome, quite fabulous new boots, and I tell you not only who designed them but where you can get your own pair, which I probably wouldn't tell you except it might be just an innocent exchange between friends. But it could also be that it's what's called buzz marketing.

This week's letter to The Ethicist comes from a listener who's wondering about the ethics of buzz marketing. Janet asked that we not use her last name, and she's on the line now. Hi there, Janet.

JANET (Caller): Hello, Jacki.

LYDEN: And hello there, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (New York Times Magazine): Hi, Jacki.

LYDEN: Janet, I understand you've got a somewhat enviable problem, people giving you lots of free luxuries, sometimes referred to as swag - my favorite word for it - because you work at an unnamed department store in an executive position, right?

JANET: That's correct.

LYDEN: And so why do you get covered in swag?

JANET: Well, I think over the last eight months people are really adopting the buzz marketing techniques. So essentially I've landed on a list that does allow me the enviable position of being asked if I want to try new products out.

LYDEN: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANET: So my letter that I wrote was sort of addressing some of these things, because we actually have a very clear-cut ethics policy within our own company where we are not allowed to accept gifts over a value of $50. And in the last little while, it's interesting because I have been offered plasma screen televisions with the price tag in the many thousands of dollar range. It's not to keep but to try and then to provide my opinion back. Also super high-end new technology, vacuum cleaners, things of that nature.

LYDEN: Things that you wouldn't sell in the store.

JANET: Things that absolutely we would not be selling in our store, but for some reason I've landed on people's radar, and they want to have me try things out.

LYDEN: Randy?

Mr. COHEN: Well, a few things. The first thing is, of course, check with your supervisor - that it's great that your store has a clear policy in place, and that's the first thing you should do, is check there. And if they - the idea of these policies is to avoid any kind of conflict of interest, and the conflict being between your desire to have a plasma TV, like all decent human beings who crave that - I think it's genetic, I'm not a scientist - and your store's desire to have you make wise choices about what kind of merchandise they would stock. It's to avoid the whole graft thing.

There are a couple of things that insulate you from that. One is that they're loans. No one's letting you keep the stuff. You're just trying it. And the other thing is that these - I think, if I understood you correctly - these are items that your store doesn't even stock. So it seems to me that you're well within the bounds of your store's policy, but you should check with your supervisor just to make sure.

What's interesting - you can call it buzz marketing - but by me that's just hipster talk for free samples. When buzz marketing gets tricky to me is when you don't know the person who's touting the thing is a paid shill, or what we ethicist call a hired liar.

You know, some buzz marketing hires really cool kids to like drink the sausage liquor or, you know, or the maple coladas, and you're at a bar, and you see someone doing it. And the impression you get is that they're drinking it because they like it. But they're being deliberately deceptive, and they're drinking it because they were paid to pretend they like it, and that's unethical on their part.

LYDEN: I must have no profile out there in the American market, Randy. No one's even given me some hand lotion to try.

Mr. COHEN: I've actually been offered money not to use certain prominent products because when people associate me with them, sales plummet.

LYDEN: Just to be absolutely clear, Janet, these are not products that your store would ever carry.

JANET: No, they're not. They're not all...

LYDEN: And they're expensive.

JANET: (Unintelligible) the categories, typically very pricey. You know, to throw another hook into it, there is the option at the end of the trial period to purchase it at a discounted rate in some of the instances. The TV, for instance, was offered at 40 percent off.

Mr. COHEN: Well, that gets a little trickier, because now it's closer to - what's the word I'm looking for? Bribes, that's the word I'm looking for.

LYDEN: There's many words for this.

Mr. COHEN: And even though that company might not sell - that particular product might not be one they would offer to your store, if you have any professional relationship with them, if you have in any influence what your employer buys, you ought not be taking expensive gifts...

JANET: Right.

Mr. COHEN: ...even in this sort of modified form.

LYDEN: Janet, I hope that clears it up for you. Thank you very much.

JANET: Well, thank you very much, Jacki and Randy. I really appreciate your insights.

LYDEN: Randy Cohen writes The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine, and if you'd like him to answer your questions, write to us. Go to our Web site npr.org, click on contact us and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Please include a phone number where we can reach you. Free luxury goods can of course be sent to Randy, care of The New York Times. Randy, thanks again.

Mr. COHEN: Well, you know, of course, you can't send them care of the New York Times. They have an absolute, absolutely and quite strict no swag policy. What you do in relation to public radio - and again, I leave you with two words. Thank you very much, which isn't two. And the two are: 40 regular.

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